Growing a string of PERLs: A report from the first year of Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders — Part II

Bringing in principles informed by my work in Faith-Based Community Organizing I entered the first full year of Philadelphia Emerging Religious Leaders (PERL) with the goal of building the small existing core of leaders into a robust and sustainable organization.

We solidified and deepened PERL’s roots as a student-led organization. Students envisioned and executed its programs, built its institutional partnerships, planned and ran its meetings, and a student – myself – staffed it. Students shared leadership, and anyone who was willing could take on any number of roles. At one point eight members held designated leadership roles coordinating programs that dozens of others participated in. There were always opportunities for people to own the direction of the organization, challenge themselves through new experiences, and grow within the organization. PERL became an opportunity for us to learn to be religious leaders by practicing leadership.

Maintaining student leadership, we partnered with seminaries and interfaith organizations to carry out programs. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was our institutional base, Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia provided space, and faculty at those institutions and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary helped identify participants. We joined in the living wage campaign of Pennsylvanians Organizing to Witness Empower and Renew. To provide training at our interfaith dialogue event we enlisted the Dialogue Institute. By taking advantage of existing interfaith organizations, we were able to do more than we would have with only volunteer leadership and one part-time staff person. This combination of student leadership and institutional partnerships was key to our success.

The emerging religious leaders and their particular interests determined PERL’s activities. Members articulated the three-part focus on relationship building, social justice, and skills building, and the way we enacted each was shaped by what particular experiences they wanted to have. I was guided by the principle that “organizing is about people, and people are about issues” – every effort or program starts with the people involved, prioritizes their experience, and ultimately exists for their growth; the people themselves then determine which issues or programs will be undertaken based on their needs. Putting our people first and letting them determine the agenda based on their goals and interests – rather than beginning with an agenda and trying to make the people fit – was key to our growth. This helped us avoid the pitfalls of being ideologically driven in the context of multiple faiths with widely varying ideological commitments. That’s not to say that we avoided politics – our living wage effort was a central program – but that campaign was selected by the members based on what they felt would be most rewarding and would allow the most relationship building. People first, then issues.

PERL members organized phone banks and canvasses as part of the living wage campaign
PERL members organized phone banks and canvasses as part of the living wage campaign

Relationship building was central. We sought to forge connections by doing work together – both the work of running the organization and its programs, and our living wage effort. Carrying out a sustained campaign together allowed for authentic and complex relationships – making decisions, planning, training, solving last-minute crises, baking cookies and sharing rides. Meanwhile, the values at the heart of the campaign provided the material for conversations about our traditions and our individual passions. We knew that good faith and even shared experiences working together would not get us through every situation – especially in our future as religious leaders in a complex and fraught multifaith society – and that it was therefore necessary to learn the concrete skills of interfaith dialogue. Our interfaith dialogue training was our single biggest event of the year and raised the profile of PERL more than any other activity. People were drawn to the campaign to pursue social justice and to the training to learn skills, but they also wanted to meet each other and share substantive experiences of collaboration and conversation.

The motivations that led people studying or working full-time to dedicate significant amounts of time to PERL were as varied as the individuals themselves, but as I sat down with each new member, I saw patterns emerge. Everyone was interested in building meaningful relationships with emerging religious leaders of other faiths. It is surprisingly rare for people to have substantive relationships with people across lines of religious difference, even people who are interested in building such connections. Many emerging religious leaders were already living in multifaith families but wanted to learn about other faiths and learn the skills of interfaith connection more intentionally. I realized that my experience of being an emerging religious leader of one faith who has family members of another is not as unique as I thought – we live in a truly multifaith society, and more and more religious leaders have parents, grandparents, sons- and daughters-in-law, and partners from another tradition. Many emerging religious leaders were drawn to religious leadership in the first place by social justice convictions. PERL provides an organized opportunity to put values into practice while in formation, something that is hard for full-time students and working people to do on their own. Most compelling were the stories of emerging Muslim and Sikh leaders who looked at interfaith work as necessary to the wellbeing of their communities. Emerging religious leaders coming from communities that are objects of violence, demonization, and misrepresentation articulated with the kind of clarity occasioned by deeply felt pain and crisis the need to be seen and understood as Muslims and Sikhs through collaborating with those of other faiths. Meeting any one of these interests would make PERL’s work worthwhile; the fact that we have the opportunity to work towards addressing so many important and heartfelt needs is exhilarating.

PERL’s success shows not that this is the only way to build an organization of emerging religious leaders, but that a student-led organization can work; that the flexible, inclusive, and community organizing principles we used are effective; and, most importantly, that it is possible to build vibrant interfaith organizations of emerging religious leaders, not just in Philadelphia, but anywhere.

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